Idlib assault on hold as Russia, Turkey set up buffer zone
The leaders of Russia and Turkey have agreed to establish a de-militarised zone in Syria's Idlib province, in a move that ostensibly puts on hold a threatened all-out assault by government forces on Syria's last rebel bastion.
The announcement was made on Monday during a press conference in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Speaking alongside Erdogan, Putin said the 15-20km-wide zone would be established by October 15.
This would entail a "withdrawal of all radical fighters" from Idlib, including the Al-Nusra Front, Putin said.
He added that heavy weapons would be withdrawn from all opposition forces by October 10 – an approach supported by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
By the end of 2018, transportation routes between the key port of Latakia and Aleppo, as well as Latakia, and the major city of Hama, must also be restored, Putin said.
Erdogan said both his country and Russia would carry out coordinated patrols in the de-militarised zone, and reiterated that the biggest threat to Turkey was the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), who control swathes of territory in northeast Syria.
Following the press conference, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the agreement between Putin and Erdogan meant that no military action would be taken against Idlib, according to Russian news agencies.
Describing the agreement as a "serious result", Putin said "Russia and Turkey have confirmed their determination to counter terrorism in Syria in all its forms."
The joint action plan comes hours after Putin and Erdogan conducted bilateral talks behind closed doors.
"We decided on the establishment of a region that is cleaned of weapons between the areas which are under the control of the opposition and the regime," Erdogan said after the talks.
"In return we will ensure that radical groups, which we will designate together with Russia, won't be active in the relevant area," he said.
"We will prevent a humanitarian tragedy which could happen as a result of military action," Erdogan added.
Prior to the meeting, Erdogan said cooperation between the two countries would bring "hope to the region".
"Essentially this boils down to a fairly significant diplomatic success for Erdogan as he has been voicing his strong opposition for some time now to the assault on Idlib," Challands said.
"We are now looking at a very different scenario that is going to be playing out by October 15."